My dog Cooper was attacked by another dog last year when he was 6 months old. Cooper and I love to walk, but hate to meet up with any other dogs. He is very fearful and will begin yipping and almost screeching when he sees larger dogs. He is fine with some of the smaller dogs. What can I do to alleviate this behavior? I was thinking about a bark collar, but do I really want to use this device on him and would it even serve the purpose? HELP! - Sandy C.
A dog attack can be a traumatic experience for both dog and owner. I’m so sorry that you had to experience this terrible event. As you work on building your dog’s confidence around other dogs, it’s important to keep in mind that he can pick up on your emotions. I know it is easier said than done, but try to stay as calm as you can when you see other dogs, keep your voice quiet, and be prepared by rehearsing in advance exactly what you are going to do in different situations.
In order to properly alleviate your dog’s fearful response to other dogs, you will need to gradually desensitize him to the presence and movement of other dogs and help him develop a positive emotional response to other dogs. Go to a location where you can view dogs from a distance and continually feed your dog chicken or some other very tasty treat whenever a dog is in view. If your dog is vocalizing, yawning, shaking, becoming stiff, licking his lips, holding his tail down or his ears back, or trying to hide or escape, this means that he is afraid and you are probably too close to the other dog. Once your dog is consistently reacting to the presence of other dogs with relaxed body language and happily looking to you for his next treat, you are ready to start slowly closing the distance from other dogs.
Desensitization is not a quick fix and can take months of work. While it can be frustrating to move so gradually, it is very important to proceed a step at a time and monitor your dog’s stress level so as to not undo the progress that has been made. In the meantime, if your dog already has a couple established dog friends, keep up those interactions so that he doesn’t forget how to meet and greet other dogs completely.
Sometimes dogs pop up out of nowhere, which can be a heart-stopping experience for both you and your dog. For these situations, it is also important to practice a “let’s go” or similar command so that you and your dog can hightail it out of there. Sometimes, picking up a dog can intensify his fearful reaction, so that is why it is helpful to teach your dog to quickly follow you out of a bad situation. Start out with your dog on leash at home or in another neutral location where there are no dogs. As you are walking with him, suddenly change direction while encouraging him to follow you with an animated, upbeat voice. If he chases after you, reward him heavily with his favorite food (or toy, if he loves toys). Once he is doing well with this game at home, you can start practicing it when you see dogs at a distance.
I would also highly recommend working with a dog behavior professional who has experience with using desensitization to treat fear in dogs, especially if your dog is barking, lunging, and/or growling at other dogs. They can help you read your dog’s body language and guide you through the process of changing your dog’s behavior. The bark collar would not be recommended in this situation, because you want your dog to love seeing other dogs. If your dog experiences an aversive stimulus, such as a shock or spray, while he is around other dogs, it will simply confirm for him that it is dangerous and unpleasant to be around other dogs.
Additional tips for helping dogs who are afraid of other dogs are available here.
Dr. Wan, a certified applied animal behaviorist, provides dog behavior consultations and puppy classes to Fairfield County dog owners. She earned her doctorate and researched dog-human communication at Columbia University.
Have a dog training or behavior question? Post your questions to Dr. Wan below, or e-mail them to AskDrWan@westportdogs.com. Please read before submitting your question.